Thursday, March 24, 2016

From "Hosannah!" to "Crucify him!"

Recently I've been joining my girlfriend's bible study group (I've had pretty bad luck with bible studies in the past, but so far this one hasn't been catastrophic), and a couple weeks ago we read the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, on what we now call Palm Sunday1. The scene is this: cheering crowds, palm branches2 laid on Jesus' path, general excitement and hope that Jesus is indeed the messiah the people have been waiting for. A mere few days later, Jesus is on trial, and the crowds are shouting again, this time calling for his death. In the bible study, someone suggested this 180-degree change in attitude was shocking. I disagreed.

I disagreed because in this aspect of human behavior, we haven't changed. Take any variety of public figure - a politician, CEO, athlete, actor, public speaker, etc - and watch what happens when any accusation of scandal crosses their path (never mind whether there's proof). That human being, who before may have been loved and respected, instantly is demoted to sub-human, a "less than." I've noticed oftentimes the torches and pitchforks even make an appearance (usually via Facebook). Or on a smaller scale, take for example the son or daughter who comes out as gay to their Christian parents or friends, and is instantly disavowed. The en masse betrayal of popular opinion that lashed out at Jesus 2000 years ago, still shows up every day in our modern-day world. I admit I'm probably overly sensitive to the topic, having witnessed the very same happen to one of my best friends.

In my mind, this human behavior is reminiscent of 1984, wherein history is revised to fit the current whims of the government - histories of wars are re-written, and references to un-persons (political dissidents who've been killed by the government) are removed from written archives of the truth.

It's as if we're all waiting to blacklist each other and be the loudest to cry out, "I never knew him!"

We are all Peter.3

And that is why I'm no longer surprised when I read this part of Jesus' story. I just get very sad, because we - humanity - haven't changed.

1 We celebrate Palm Sunday one week before Easter, though after some Googling on the exact chronology of events, it looks like there's some ambiguity about exactly how many days come between Jesus' entry to Jerusalem and his crucifixion. For the sake of this blog post, let's just define it as a "few".

2 Even after four trips to the Middle East this past year, I still haven't figured out how palm trees grow in the desert. I've concluded it must be magic.

3 Not everyone may be familiar with my reference here. Peter was a disciple of Jesus, and after Jesus was arrested, Peter denied three times ever knowing him. He then felt guilty. This is a key part of his story, because I don't think we do a particular good job with that last bit today, myself and the general American populace suffering from a condition of over-amplified self-righteousness anymore.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Death surrounds us; a Friday story

When I visited Facebook this morning, it was to find unexpected sorrow: announcements of deaths of people I don't even know directly, yet deeply saddening me all the same (one, the wife of a college friend whom I haven't seen in years; two, the newborn baby of two friends from a years-ago small group; and every day I wonder what news will come from my girlfriend's aunt, who is in hospice care).

I remember last year around Easter writing about how pervasive death was then, too. Maybe it is year-round. Maybe I'm just noticing death more because Easter is next week, and Easter is all about death.

Recently I read (listened to) a book called "Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus" by John Ortberg. In one of the later chapters he talks about Friday stories, and three-day stories, and some of the quotes are beautiful:

All three-day stories share a structure. On the first day there is trouble, and on the third day there is deliverance. On the second day there is nothing, just the continuation of trouble. The problem with third-day stories is you don't know it's a third-day story until the third day. When it's Friday, when it's Saturday, as far as you know, deliverance is never going to come. It may just be a one-day story, and that one-day of trouble may last the rest of your life.


Some people, silently, secretly, live here [Friday]. You can choose denial, simplistic explanations, impatience, easy answers, artificial pleasantness, hydroplane over authentic humanity, forced optimism, clich├ęd formulas, false triumphalism. Paul wrote to Timothy that "some say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some." In other words, apparently some said, "it's already Sunday. The resurrection has already happened for all of us, so if you're having any problems, if you're still sick, if your prayers aren't being answered, you just don't have enough faith. Get with the program!" Or there is this third option. You can wait. Work with God even when he feels far away. Rest. Ask. Whine. Complain. Trust. Oddly, the most common song is the song of complaint, the Saturday song: "God why aren't you listening?"


The miracle of Sunday is that a dead man lives. The miracle of Saturday is that the eternal Son of God lies dead. So Jesus Christ defeats our great enemy, Death, not by proclaiming his invincibility over it, but by submitting himself to it. If you can find this Jesus in a grave, if you can him in death, if you can find him in hell, where can you *not* find him? Where will he *not* turn up?

- "Who Is This Man" by John Ortberg, Chapter 14

I said earlier that Easter is all about death. It's all about life, too, of course - that is why 8 days from now we will dance and sing and shout for joy as we remember a miracle two millennia old. But I worry that in our post-Sunday mentality, we minimize the reality of the pain of Friday. Because even though Sunday's coming, when it's still Friday, hearing that Sunday is around the corner doesn't make things magically better. The pain is real, now, here, this moment.

In my post-AWAKEN years, when Easter comes around I end up longing for more time between Friday and Sunday to mourn, to wear all black, to feel all the emotions of loss. I long for this because even my favorite church services of the year - the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Vigil of Easter - will resurrect Jesus on Saturday night, minimizing the time He spends in the grave. This is good, I suppose - who doesn't want to minimize pain and sorrow and suffering? But at the risk of reading too much into it, I feel like we've lost, churchy-culturally, the willingness to sit patiently in the midst of that sorrow, and if we aren't willing to sit in it while we wait for Jesus, how can we honestly sit with those who've lost a loved one, or a relationship, or a job, or any other loss, and not try to rush them through their grief? Sunday's coming, yes, but I don't want to lose the power of Friday and Saturday.

When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. - Job 2:11-13

Monday, March 07, 2016

Audiobook reflection: The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes

I'm pretty sure my introduction to Sherlock Holmes came from television - either episodes of Wishbone (one of the only dogs I've ever loved), or Star Trek: The Next Generation (in which Data develops a fascination with the detective). In more recent years, I've greatly loved BBC's new Sherlock series as well. But apart from these on-screen adaptations, I had never actually experienced any of Sir Arthur's original works until a little over a year ago, when I finished reading (technically: "listening to the audiobook of") The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes, a 70+ hour audiobook containing all 56 short stories and 4 novels in the canon. Whereas most of my audiobooks are around 10 hours long and easily listened to in under a week, Sherlock was an investment of 50 days. Fortunately, the narrator accompanying me in this journey was one I'd consider "good" in my book (pardon the pun :) for the fact that he used different voices for each character, so I could always know who was speaking. My only quibble is that he could have spoken marginally faster, and shaved a few hours off the grand total. Also there were a few awkwardly long pauses, and the random watch beeping in the background, though given the sheer mass of material those are forgivable.

One of my favorite aspects of reading "older" literatures is the vernacular. Like Nicolas Cage's character nostalgically says in National Treasure, "People don't talk that way anymore." In Sherlock, some such words that stood out to me (often due to their over-use) were:

But pronounced the British way: "ad-*ver*-tis-ment" (and with a short "i").
Agony column
Apparently in old-timey newspapers, there was a column for missing persons and items. Based on its frequent usage to ensnare Sherlock's suspects, I'm given to believe every person in all of Britain must have read their newspapers front-to-back back in those days.
Bad business
Unfortunate circumstances.
Exactly what it sounds like. I just love this word.
Interjected or interrupted. Watson was always doing this.
Involved in an activity.
Knock you up
Come knocking on your door.
Unique, standing out (although for as often as the word was used, it became quite unsingularly commonplace).
Tut tut
Tsk tsk, you're better than that.

Being so bold as to imagine myself in the shoes of dear Watson for a moment, I could easily picture him writing the following sentences in one of his Sherlockian journals: I engaged myself to reading the morning's agony column, whereupon I discovered a quite singular advertisement. "Holmes!" I ejaculated. "You must see this! Someone has burgled–" "Tut, tut," he interrupted. "It's bad business to be knocking a body up at this hour."

And on the subject of language: a frequent frustration of mine (and I imagine Holmes's as well) was how many of his clients dilly dallied around their point, giving all manner of unnecessary introductory remarks. As a made-up example: "Mr. Holmes, this is a most singular tale, you will no doubt agree with me once you have heard all the details which I'm about to reveal to you. Surely you have never heard a case quite like mine before in all your adventures, for let me tell you it is quite remarkable..." and they'd just go on and on and on!

Some reflections upon the character of Sherlock himself: he rarely asked his clients for money (with a few rare exceptions of the super-wealthy). And he rarely took praise or credit - he frequently reassured the police inspectors they need not share credit or mention him at all in their reports. He was sharp, or rather, blunt? And arrogant (as you'll read in a number of quotes below). Yet he had a human side - there were those singular cases in which his conscience actually led him to let the murderer go. I lack the specific quote, but in its essence he conveyed "I understand why you did what you did, and I'm not going to turn you over to the police, I'm just going to tell them the case is resolved." One example is in The Adventure of the Devil's Foot, and it's a fascinating moral question: was Dr. Sterndale really "guilty," or could his crime instead be called "justice," avenging another murder of someone he loved? I liked that Sherlock occasionally showed this human side instead of being 100% of the time cold and calculating. The intentionality of working separately from the police force allowed him this leeway.

For a one-and-a-half month investment of my audiobook listening time, I'd say Sherlock was worth it. Though the whole collection won't be on my re-listen list in the near future, mayhaps when a new season of the BBC series approaches I will find myself inclined to listen to a few specific short stories again.

My favorite quotes

"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain, originally, is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge, which might be useful to him, gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now, the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these, he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it. There comes a time when, for every addition of knowledge, you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
"But the solar system!" I protested.
"What the use duece is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently.
- Sherlock and Watson
"May I ask whether you have any professional inquiry on foot at present?"
"None. Hence the cocaine. I cannot live without brainwork. What else is there to live for?"
- Watson and Sherlock
"I never make exceptions. An exception disproves the rule." - Sherlock
"The main thing with people of that sort," said Holmes, as we sat in the sheets of the wary, "is never to let them think that their information can be of the slightest importance to you. If you do, they will instantly shut up like an oyster. If you listen to them under protest, as it were, you are very likely to get what you want." - Sherlock
"He remarks that, while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate, he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do. But you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician." - Sherlock
"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories instead of theories to suit facts." - Sherlock
I trust that I am not more dense than my neighbors, but I was always impressed with a sense of my own stupidity in my dealings with Sherlock Holmes. Here I had heard what he had heard, I had seen what he had seen, and yet from his words it was evident that he saw clearly not only what had happened, but what was about to happen, while to me the whole business was still confused and grotesque. - Watson
(Sherlock just deduced something about the killer)
"It is wonderful!" I exclaimed.
"It is obvious."
- Watson and Sherlock
"What do you intend to do?"
"In view of your health, nothing. You are yourself aware that you will soon have to answer for your deed at a higher court than the Assizes. I will keep your confession, and if McCarthy is condemned I shall be forced to use it. If not, it shall never be seen by mortal eye; and your secret, whether you be alive or dead, shall be safe with us."
"Farewell, then," said the old man solemnly. "Your own deathbeds, when they come, will be the easier for the thought of the peace which you have given to mine."
- John Turner and Sherlock
"I suppose that I am committing a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again, he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now and you make him a jailbird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and it's solution is it's own reward." - Sherlock
The Adventure of the Speckled Band
On glancing over my notes of the seventy odd cases in which I have during the last eight years studied the methods of my friend Sherlock Holmes, I find many tragic, some comic, a large number merely strange, but none commonplace; for, working as he did rather for the love of his art than for the acquirement of wealth, he refused to associate himself with any investigation which did not tend towards the unusual, and even the fantastic. - Watson
"We can't command our love but we can our actions." - The Runaway Wife
"Crime is common, logic is rare. Therefore it is upon the logic, rather than upon the crime, that you should dwell." - Sherlock
"And above all, do not fret until you know that you really have a cause for it." - Sherlock
Like all Holme's reasoning, the thing seemed simplicity itself when it was once explained. - Watson
"He's been behaving very queerly, and he's very much excited."
"I don't think you need alarm yourself," said I. "I have usually found that there was method in his madness."
"Some folk might say there was madness in his method!" muttered the Inspector.
- The Inspector and Watson
"What business is it of yours, then?"
"It's every man's business to see justice done."
- Henry Wood and Sherlock
"I've heard of your methods before now, Mr. Holmes," said he, tartly. "You are ready enough to use all the information that the police can lay at your disposal, and then you try to finish the case yourself and bring discredit on them."
"On the contrary," said Holmes. "Out of my last 53 cases, my name has only appeared in 4, and the police have had all the credit in 49. I don't blame you for not knowing this for you are young and inexperienced, but if you wish to get on in your new duties, you will work with me and not against me."
- A detective, and Sherlock
"I have noticed that when he is off the trail he generally says so; it is when he is on a scent and is not quite absolutely sure yet that it is the right one that he is most taciturn." - Watson
"By George!" cried the inspector. "However did you see that?"
"Because I looked for it."
An Inspector and Sherlock
"Lie number 1!" said the old man. "I never saw either of them until two months ago and I have never been in Africa in my life. So you can put that in your pipe and smoke it, mister busy-body Holmes." - Mr. Woodley
"Good Lord, Mr. Holmes, where have you lived?"
Holmes laughed at the young giant's naive astonishment.
"You live in a different world to me, Mr. Overton. A sweeter and healthier one. My ramifications stretch out into many sections of society, but never, I am happy to say, into amateur sport."
- Mr. Overton and Sherlock
"It is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of the facts." - Sherlock
"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes." - Sherlock
"This chance of the picture has supplied us with one of our most obvious missing links. We have him, Watson, we have him! And I dare swear that before tomorrow night he will be fluttering in our net as helpless as one of his own butterflies. A pin, a cork, and a card, and we add him to the Baker Street collection."
He burst into one of his rare fits of laughter, as he turned away from the picture. I have not heard him laugh often, and it has always boded ill to somebody.
- Sherlock and Watson
"I have no more notion than you how long it is to last," Holmes answered with some asperity. "If criminals would always schedule their movements like railway trains it would certainly be more convenient for all of us." - Sherlock
"I was helping Uncle Sam to make dollars. Maybe mine were not as good gold as his but they looked as well and were cheaper to make." - John McMurdo
"I should prefer that you do not mention my name at all in connection with the case as I choose to be only associated with those crimes which present some difficulty in their solution." - Sherlock
"It is art for art's sake, Watson. I suppose when you doctored you found yourself studying cases without thought of a fee?"
"For my education, Holmes."
"Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last."
- Sherlock and Watson
"But your appearance Holmes. Your ghastly face."
"Three days of absolute fast does not improve one's beauty, Watson."
- Watson and Sherlock
"Besides, on general principles it is best that I should not leave the country. Scotland Yard feels lonely without me, and it causes an unhealthy excitement among the criminal classes." - Sherlock
"And a singularly consistent investigation you have made, my dear Watson," said he. "I cannot at the moment recall any possible blunder which you have omitted. The total effect of your proceeding has been to give the alarm everywhere, and yet to discover nothing."
"Perhaps you would have done no better," I answered, bitterly.
"There is no perhaps about it. I *have* done better."
- Sherlock and Watson
"How do you know that?"
"I followed you."
"I saw no one."
"That is what you may expect to see when I follow you."
- Dr. Leon Sterndale and Sherlock
He stared at the writing with a face from which every expression save amazement had vanished. - Watson
"This agency stands flatfooted upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us, no ghosts need apply." - Sherlock
"Touch him where you would, he was false." - Sherlock
Mr. Nathan Garrideb proved to be a very tall, loose-jointed, round-backed person, gaunt and bald, some 60 odd years of age. He had a cadaverous face, with the dull, dead skin of a man to whom exercise was unknown. - Watson
"But how did you know, Mr. Holmes?"
"I am an omnivorous reader with a strangely retentive mind for trifles."
- Mr. Murdock and Sherlock
"There being no fear of interruption, I proceeded to burgle the house. Burglary has always been an alternative profession had I cared to adopt it, and I have little doubt that I should have come to the front." - Sherlock